Job Information Centers found to be lacking


WASHINGTON -- A new study by the General Accounting Office may help explain why job-seekers may get the impression that "Uncle Sam does not want you."

The study released last week detailed problems job-seekers face when visiting Federal Job Information Centers. GAO investigators who visited 20 of the nation's 40 centers found "barren" offices that were open for a short time, provided few take-home materials, had jammed printers and malfunctioning computers, and often no staffers available.

These obstacles "would likely frustrate prospective applicants and perhaps discourage them from pursuing federal employment," said the report, which was requested by Sen. David Pryor, D-Ark., and Rep. Gerry Sikorski, D-Minn., who chair Senate and House civil service subcommittees.

Even before they visited the centers, GAO investigators were frustrated by poor telephone service. Thirteen of the 20 centers were listed in the telephone book under Office of Personnel Management (OPM), making them difficult to find for people unfamiliar with the federal bureaucracy.

Of the 43 GAO employees who made calls to the centers, only 18 connected on the first try; six after two or three calls; 13 after at least four calls, and six dialed at least five times and never got through.

Only one completed call was picked up by a staffer; the rest by answering machines that sometimes worked well and at other times did not.

On a positive note, the GAO reported that centers were generally located in central downtown areas easily accessible by public transportation.

None of the centers were open evenings or weekends, and they averaged only 7 1/2 business hours per day, the GAO said. The Baltimore center was not surveyed.

The report described the centers as "clean and organized" busome were "hot and stuffy while others were barren and unappealing." Often there were no chairs and tables at which job-seekers could sit to read and write.

Only 12 of the 20 centers were staffed by information specialists. Although generally "friendly, patient and helpful," most of the staffers were available for only a few hours a day and sometimes gave incorrect answers.

When staffers were not present, the only available sources of information were binders, bulletin boards and, in half of the centers, touch screen computers.

Job applications and other written materials usually had to be requested from staffers, often after completing a form. When no staffers were available, which was a good deal of the time, a

job-seeker would have to mail a form to request a job application.

"Taken together, these problems may unintentionally signal to job seekers that 'Uncle Sam does not want you,'" said the report.

It recommended that OPM install more phone lines, improve maintenance of recorded messages and computer equipment, provide weekend or evening hours, furnish centers with tables and chairs, staff all offices with information specialists, and make more brochures and applications available.

OPM, responding to the report in a letter, did not disagree with any of the GAO's findings, but did caution that centers are only one part of its job information system.

Leonard R. Klein, OPM's associate director for career entry, also said the system of distributing job information is being completely overhauled. Eventually all FJICs will feature electronic bulletin boards; self-service computers; a computer-based reference system for information specialists; computer links with state job services; and a telephone system available 24-hours a day, seven days a week, providing callers an option to speak to a staffer or leave a message.

Workshops on aging:

The Social Security Administration's Woodlawn headquarters

is offering employees lunchtime workshops on caring for elderly family members.

"Based on a recent survey of our employees' needs, the initial program is focusing on educating both employees and managers about the nature of elder care and its impact on the worklife of our employees," said SSA Commissioner Gwendolyn S. King in a press release.

Some 200 employees took part in recent workshops, and about a dozen more sessions will be offered over the next year, said SSA spokeswoman Michelle Bryski.

SSA employees may use their annual leave time to care for elderly relatives, Ms. Bryski said.

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